[Tweeters] Newfoundland Adventure

Constance Sidles constancesidles at gmail.com
Sat Mar 28 19:36:59 PDT 2020

Hey tweets,

As I write this, we are nearing the end of two weeks of self-distancing on account of the novel corona virus. One day slides into another, with nothing to mark the passage of time, making it difficult to remember what day it is. I began this self-imposed exile believing I could relieve the tedium with bird walks around my favorite place on Earth, Montlake Fill. A Say's Phoebe is there now, so I hear, and a shrike I would like to see but have not. I grow increasingly uncomfortable with these walks, as I find too many people who ignore or cannot maintain the requisite six feet of separation from my CO2 aura.

So instead, each morning I get up, while John bakes the newspaper in a 200-degree oven for 25 minutes, in case a virus somehow attached itself to the newsprint. I read the dismal news, avoid the internet because what is the point, compulsively surf the net anyway, read a book, dust a shelf, watch as Ra sails Ma-nedjet, his solar boat, slowly across the sky from east to west before sinking into the netherworld at sunset. I watched him yesterday, I watched him today, I watched him tomorrow. No need for differentiating tenses anymore. Past tense will do. I like it better than the eternal present. It implies someday this will all be behind us.

In the meantime, the governor is telling us we might have to watch Ra from our home fortresses until he rises as high in the sky as he ever will. Summer.

This was supposed to be our Year of Adventure, but the corona virus outbreak was not the adventure I had envisioned when John gifted me with his offer to take us to otherworldly places for a year. We have already lost a distant cousin to the onslaught. We fear.

To counter the fear and create some sense of normal, I find my mind drifting back to our last happy adventure, a January trip to Newfoundland. Oh, I am carried away from the dismal present by my memories. Perhaps you will be, too.

Contrary to its name, Newfoundland is not a new land. It is old - old geologically, old historically. Five hundred millions years ago, a piece of the supercontinent Gondwanaland floated over the ocean, kissed the shore of Canada, and wedded itself there. Millenia later, when the glaciers of the last Ice Age retreated from the land, archaic peoples arrived here to hunt and fish for a living. People have been living here ever since, one wave of culture sweeping away another.

The first Europeans to arrive were the Vikings, who were attracted by some of the richest fishing grounds in the world. We went there to see Dovekies, the smallest alcid in the Atlantic Ocean. Dovekies are black-and-white footballs smaller than robins. They are the only member of their genus (Alle), and a good candidate for the cutest bird in all the world. Ordinarily, Dovekies stay far out to sea in winter, but in the innumerable harbors that serrate the eastern coast of Newfoundland, Dovekies come close to shore to dive in the shallows for tiny fish, mollusks, and crustaceans.

Our adventure began with a long flight to St. John's, the largest city on the island. There, we were met by our Wings tour guide, Jared Clarke, a preeminent birder with the eyes of a hawk, the patience of a heron, and the affability of nearly all the Canadians we have ever met. We joined three other birders who had all come to this northern outpost to see a world as different from ours as you can imagine. Eastern Newfoundland is a land pummeled by the Atlantic. Each winter the turbulent waves try to claw their way through the granite that lines the shore, to no avail. The silent rocks resist. Inland lies the tundra, its flat tableland covered with snow, scoured by blizzards that blow rivulets of ice along the surface, long, restless streamers colored pale pink, blue, and yellow by the low-lying sun.

Every day for 10 days, I got dressed in so many layers of arctic gear that I looked like the Michelin Man. After the first long day driving in the van, alternating with walking in the snow, I realized I should not drink any fluids for breakfast. I was the only woman aboard, and bushes were few, far between, and sparsely leaved.

But who can be bothered by cold or any other kind of discomfort when you walk to the edge of a black sand dune, and there, foraging at your feet on the shore among the rounded granite rocks is a flock of Purple Sandpipers, chattering to each other as they discuss their menu of worms and bugs? Who cares that the wind is gusting at 80 mph and that you lost contact with your own feet hours ago, when you can round another bend and see Dovekies diving for fish only two feet from shore? We came upon just such a flock in a protected bay. Fishing must have been very fine, because birds were everywhere - Long-tailed Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers, Iceland Gulls, and Dovekies, lots and lots of Dovekies.

John and I wanted to see these little alcids in our scope, but when they are busy foraging, Dovekies stay up for only three or four seconds, then dive back underwater again for long minutes at a time. They weren't up long enough for us to focus the scope. Then we realized Dovekies tend to come up to breathe very close to where they dove. So John focused the scope on one bird's ripples while I acted as spotter. "Dovekie up," I would say, "Dovekie down. Dovekie up, Dovekie down." Soon we both learned how to move the scope quickly enough to see a bird's every feather, the gleam in its black eye, the tiny webs on its feet, its minuscule tail the last to disappear when it dove again.

A memory to warm the heart in the cold of a Newfoundland winter, or in the grim chill of pandemic crisis. Here's wishing you similar memories of birds past.

- Connie, Seattle

csidles at constancypress.com <mailto:csidles at constancypress.com>
constancesidles at gmail.com <mailto:constancesidles at gmail.com>

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